It’s not easy to admit that the worst part of my life was the first year of becoming a mother.
Three years ago, I was referred to the perinatal mental health services at Mater Dei Hospital, following an urgent visit to a health centre. I was in no state to realise I had a mental health problem. I was suffering from postpartum psychosis – a rare psychiatric emergency characterised by a cocktail of ugly symptoms, including anxiety, depression, mania, insomnia, delusions, hallucinations and paranoia, among others.
The experience of having a baby is a big life event, and for many, pleasurable and indescribable. It is a period that is expected to bring with it feelings of extreme happiness, unconditional love and hope for the future.
However, for some mothers and their families, the perinatal period (the time before and after the birth) is a completely different story. This is because pregnancy and the postnatal periods are known to be times of increased vulnerability to psychiatric conditions.
In Malta, perinatal mental health patients can self-refer, or are referred by their GP, midwife, obstetrician/gynecologist, or lay individuals and family members. They can be referred to the perinatal mental health services at Mater Dei Hospital or to health centres.
The newly established NGO, Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance, seeks to support individuals experiencing perinatal mental health issues and their infants. It has been set up to be an advocate for people who suffer from perinatal mental health issues, and to raise public and political awareness on perinatal and infant mental health with the aim of influencing policy and legislation.
The mothers’ suffering can be so severe that in certain instances it can lead to suicide
More than this, the NGO also aspires to promote research in this area, serve as a public voice on issues related to perinatal and infant mental health, change attitudes towards mental health to reduce stigma and provide emotional and mental support to individuals and their families going through mental health issues. It also aims to form part of any national and/or international organisation/s whose aims are similar to that of the organisation.
Perinatal mental health disorders lie on a spectrum, and range from mild, for example, ‘baby blues’, to severe, such as psychosis. Other conditions are postpartum depression, OCD, postpartum anxiety and PTSD.
Every condition is diagnosable and treatable, but if left untreated, the mothers’ suffering can be so severe that in certain instances it can lead to suicide (WHO). Perinatal mental health problems have an effect on the well-being of the infant and can also continue into adolescence, especially in cases where the affected mother cannot function properly.
As a service-user representing the voices of patients and their families within the Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance, I can attest to the professional and dedicated individuals who specialise in this area within Mater Dei and other community mental health teams.
Perinatal mental health conditions are a public health issue and must be taken seriously. If left untreated, there can be devastating effects on the mother, infant and their families. What’s more, in the UK, the costs of perinatal mental health problems run into billions: 28 per cent relate to the mother, while 72 per cent relate to the child.
Through the Alliance, I aspire to help mothers, infants and their families become aware that they do not have to suffer alone. There is help out there. Do not be afraid to seek it. Most importantly, your confidentiality will be ensured.
I beg family members, especially those closest to the mother, to be in tune with her demeanour and not hesitate to call for help, as the consequences are far more serious than not seeking it.
I spent two weeks as an inpatient and was allowed to be with my baby during that time. The recovery process was long and lasted months. Apart from treatment prescribed by my psychiatrist, I also sought therapy, which is also helpful in processing the situation.
I am still on medication and I do not know whether this journey has a definite ending. What I certainly know is that the support I received from family, friends and colleagues made a real difference in my recovery and I am grateful for their support.
My wish is that I serve as an inspiration to many others who are silently suffering. I hope I have unlocked a few doors and windows, so that if there is anyone out there who is struggling, I want her to know that it is fine to open up a dialogue and help normalise the situation by talking to each other and sharing our stories of survival. In this way, we will be helping others who may be feeling lonely, shameful and confused.
I am a survivor of a mental health sickness. It is an illness just like any other physical illness. When I speak out, it means that other women realise it is not something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.
Our voices need to be heard – loud and clear. Not all women are treated for their postpartum psychiatric conditions. They don’t have to brave it on their own. They don’t have to act like heroes. They already are.
Mothers, fathers and their families can become members and support the Alliance through the following options: Like and follow our Facebook page – Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance or call us on 7970 1767.
Deborah Atanasio is a teacher by profession and also a service-user representative within the Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance.